Few artists rode a creative wave like the one the Rolling Stones did between 1968-72, when they released four of rock's most enduring albums. The Beatles did it between 1966-69, Bob Dylan in 1965-66. Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. are milestone works by any band. That one group recorded these landmark LPs during a four-year period is an astounding testament to how essential the Stones were to the rock 'n' roll landscape in the late '60s and early '70s.

Sticky Fingers may not be the Stones' best album, but it is their tightest and most focused. And on the three-disc Super Deluxe Edition reissue of the 1971 classic, its legacy grows a little richer.

As if that's possible. As the original remastered album here shows, Sticky Fingers documents a band raging into a new decade following the turbulent end of the one that came before. If Let It Bleed was the Stones' goodbye to the '60s, Sticky Fingers was their hello to the '70s, and they greet it with one of their most focused collection of songs, which range from the bawdy kick of opener "Brown Sugar" to "Wild Horses"'s mournful twang to the bluesy, ballsy horn-kissed "Bitch."

But it's the early versions and outtakes of those familiar songs found on the set's second disc that make this reissue worth savoring: a scorching-if-kinda-messy take of "Brown Sugar" with Eric Clapton on guitar, an even more stripped-down "Wild Horses," "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" without its signature jam and an extended version of "Bitch" that traces the song's sprawling origins.

None of it is essential, and none tops the tracks that have been available for nearly 45 years. But in putting together the pieces of an album that served as a rebirth of sorts for the Stones -- Mick Taylor was now a full-time member, and it's the first album to be released on the band's custom label -- they also pick up the pieces from Altamont and the deep, dark depths combed on 1969's Let It Bleed.

Sticky Fingers isn't exactly a celebratory album, but it comes close. The horns splattered throughout drive some of the band's best performances, from Mick Jagger's soulful vocals to Keith Richards' stinging guitar lines to Charlie Watts' steadfast rhythmic energy.

Everyone sounds revived, especially on the Super Deluxe Edition's third set, a 1971 concert from Leeds University. This was one of the Stones' last tours before the rot set in following 1972's Exile on Main St. (The 1977 concert album, Love You Live, culled from the 1975 tour is one of the most dismal live LPs ever released.) There's no sag here, just a lean band tearing through some old favorites ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," "[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction") and some brand new songs from Sticky Fingers, which wasn't out yet.

While the performance isn't on the level of the dark intensity and eventual dread that fueled the Stones' 1969 tour (which resulted in 1970's Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, the group's best concert recording), Get Yer Leeds Lungs Out -- the title of the third disc -- is loose, wicked and raw, exhibiting the band its absolute live peak. (There's also a handful of cuts from another 1971 concert on the second disc, but out of context, they sort of get lost in the mix.)

In a way, Sticky Fingers -- or 1971, for that matter -- represents the last golden age of the Stones. Soon they would convene in France to lay down the tracks for their 1972 masterpiece Exile on Main St. But drugs, booze, lethargy and general bloat would consume the band during and after those sessions. Tours became predictable and stifled, records (for the most part) staid and boring. Sticky Fingers is none of that. It's dirty, it's exciting; it's raw and it's full of life. And this expanded reissue soundly proves why the Rolling Stones were rock's greatest band. We'll never see the likes of this again.

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